by Vikram Singh
I recently completed another round-the-world trip and got to experience a few different airlines and their cultures. It always amazes me how different things are when you switch carriers, even when you are paying the exact same fare. After logging a million miles in the air over the past few years, I think it's time to give some feedback.
Airlines are the wings (literally) on which the global travel industry relies to deliver the tourist demand. There is only so far you can drive, and intercontinental travel gets even trickier. Hotels, restaurants, and tour operators rely on a network of airplanes to make global tourism a reality. Yet, air travel is the sector consistently on the brink.
For quite some time now, air travel has started to really suck. The steady gradual decline is impossible to ignore. Several external factors have been credited for the downfall of service: taxes, fuel costs, government regulations, etc. These are all valid reasons that are beyond the control of the airlines.
These are the times and conditions that have been handed over to the airline industry. They (like Frodo) may wish that none of these things had happened. But to quote Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
So let's talk about the things that can be changed and controlled by airlines. I have been flying all over the globe for business and personal trips for the past several years. All those miles in the air have given me a front row seat to how airlines operate both in First/Business class as well as steerage (Economy) class.
Here are some things I think could improve internally.
Clean it up!
"Living" on a flight in a dirty seat is no better than sleeping in a dirty hotel room. Nobody likes that. Dirty airplanes are just not welcoming. I have stepped into a lot of planes that some would only describe as "gnarly." Crumbs and food stains = instant frown on a passenger's face, no matter how optimistic he is. United and American seem to be competing on flying the dirtiest planes. Regional jets are especially dirty, which seems odd, as cleaning a smaller plane should be quicker and easier.
The nose knows.
First impressions matter, and lingering ones do too! Imagine stepping into a foul cloud at the beginning of a 2-, 3-, 4-, or 9-hour journey! You are already miserable and the doors have not even been shut yet. United and American (again) smell notoriously bad on both shorter and international long haul flights. Asian airlines like Japan Airlines, Singapore Air and others obviously have an aromatherapist that they consult. I know it's not cheap, but it's definitely cheaper than refurbishing the entire aircraft.
Offer caffeination salvation.
Ordering a cup of tea on an airplane is always tragic. Like Hamlet in a cup. Even the best brand of tea (which, by the way, is never available on board) can't mask the taste of the water they're using. And coffee? Expect it to be "extra-strong" = burnt + boiled coffee; it can scar your palate and stick to your clothes as well.
Some European carriers (SwissAir and Lufthansa) and several based in Asia do a great job of providing hot caffeinated beverages that cheer up the dullest flights. Example: freshly made hot green tea on Japan Airlines and ANA (All Nippon) is a lifesaver on 12-hour Chicago-Tokyo flights. A particular Food and Beverage instructor in my hotel school always repeated this annoying phrase, which I truly appreciate now: "Coffee Boiled is Coffee Spoiled." Just as I write this, Singapore Airlines is planning to serve Illy coffee on board. The happiest fliers on earth are the ones with an Illy coffee cup in their hands at 30,000 feet!
A warm smile is the universal language of kindness. This language seems extinct when travelling on some of the leading US-based carriers. From the check-in counter to the airplane. No smiles for you!
Flight attendants work really hard. Add the general negativity surrounding airline and labor relations, outdated rules and restrictions, horribly designed airports... what we have here is a complete failure to smile.
Asian-based airlines have somehow made this a part of their standard operating procedure. Ask for anything from anyone in uniform, and you will get a smile. (JAL even draws them on children's drink lids.) This has got to be the least expensive way to upgrade your fleet.
WiFi or die.
Airlines can learn from hotels and global coffee retailers. Want to minimize complaints and have a plane full of people not bothering you? Easy...give them free WiFi! The Internet always has something for everyone. No airline "In Flight Entertainment" or IFE (as it's known in the biz) can compete with the latest news, stock prices or celebrity updates getting streamed to their passengers' beloved devices. Charging $10 to $19/hour and excluding streaming = passengers looking to be unhappy. The first airline to offer this is going to supercharge their customer base and marketing.
Power to the people.
It's almost 2014...not sure why every single seat does not have a charger. I believe that an idle passenger's mind is the devil's workshop. Here is a crucial fact that cannot be ignored by any business: we are all hopelessly attached/addicted to our electronic devices. Why not let people stay charged up, and not run out of juice mid-flight? Losing battery charge has got to be one of the top fears in today's traveller's mind. Business Class already has this option. But guess what? They also have leg space, better meals...did I mention leg space? Now look back at the masses in steerage. Don't those poor souls at least deserve to charge their phones?
Give service, not lectures.
Over the recent years, flight attendants for US-based carriers have almost been forced to be Federal Marshals on the plane. This is not helping the flying experience and is making everyone uncomfortable. Making everyone hyper-nervous by continuously announcing what you "CANNOT" do... is pretty lame.
First, let me say that all US-based airlines are not the same. I have not flown Virgin America, which I hear is awesome. Why haven't I tried it? Because it will make my future American flights extra painful! (Disclosure: I am an AA elite flier.) And there are plenty of non-American airlines that are equally bad or worse. I endured some of the worse service ever on a recent KLM flight. So it's not really a cultural thing. It's a business thing, and it's about making service a priority again. The way it used to be when air travel started.
I hear that people used to look forward to flying. It was itself a destination. They wore dressy clothes to commemorate the experience, and they felt pampered (despite the cigarette smoke circling their heads). Now we dread the actual "travel" part of travelling, and just want to get where we're going as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Airlines that continue to make flying an experience to remember are the ones that offer hope for the future of travel. To quote Dr. Rumack from my all time favorite airline movie (Airplane) "Good luck, we are all counting on you!"